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A couple’s financial plans are like an airplane with two jet engines. If both engines are not pointed in the same direction, they are going to have some problems. By not working as a team, financial planning for most couples will always be a battle and never a victory.
For 10 years I worked as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley, where I had the privilege of working with a lot of couples, some even going through divorce. In most cases, money was the No. 1 reason for their marital problems. Conversely, with the couples I met who had been married 20 to 30 years, it was obvious they worked on their finances as a team.
Money disorders are the last great taboo topic. Couples are more comfortable talking about sex than money. This fear of talking about money stems from how we were raised. If you are in your 30s or 40s, your parents, in most cases, didn’t talk to you about money at all. You were raised at a time when it wasn’t polite to talk about money. And often the only time you saw your parents talk about money was when they were fighting about it. So much of our knowledge of how to handle money comes from what we saw our parents do. And, often, our parents were not the greatest fi nancial role models.
Whether you are newlyweds or are looking to retire, planning your finances together is something you can start today. And remember, when two people work together to accomplish a goal, they can usually achieve it twice as fast as either of them working alone.
I wrote Smart Women Finish Rich around the same time I was getting married. And even though my wife and I were financial advisors, we were arguing about money. We had never taken a class or received any coaching about how to manage money as a couple. As a result, neither of us thought about how different things would become when we went from being two single people managing money as individuals to a couple managing money together.
We thought if it’s tough for us, no wonder it’s tough for other couples. And that’s what led me to write Smart Couples Finish Rich. I’m humbled that the book has been so well received. In the 10 years it has been in print, it has sold close to a million copies worldwide.
So what can you and your partner do to avoid arguing about money? (I use partner deliberately because in a good relationship that’s exactly what a spouse or significant other should be.)
First, you have to look at why most couples fight about money. What happens in most marriages is we tend to marry our financial opposite. If you are raised to save money, you tend to marry someone who is a spender. If you have married your financial opposite and you’re not talking about money proactively, you need to come up with a better plan.
"Couples tend to fight about what was spent rather than their underlying fears about money."
In my experience, couples talk about money primarily when there is a problem, such as when the bank account is empty or it’s time to pay the bills. Usually, one person in the marriage pays the bills. And when I was growing up, it was my father, who would barricade himself in his office once a month. It was common knowledge in my home that no one ventured to that side of the house when dad was paying bills. A lot of couples I have talked to share similar experiences.
Many couples tend to fight about what was spent rather than their real underlying fears about money. I might get upset with my wife that she bought her sixth pair of black shoes, but the shoes are not why I am angry with her. My anger stems from the underlying fear about whether my job is secure or how we are going to pay for college for our son. Often, the real issue isn’t what the squabbling is about.
With more than 33 percent of marriages ending in divorce, and research showing that the biggest cause of marital stress is financially related, the American family is under even greater pressure as we head into one of the most difficult recessions in three decades. How can we weather the economic storm?
It’s more important than ever to continue talking with your partner about your financial concerns. It’s also important that you continue working together on solutions and goals, and that you remain open to each other’s ideas. Creative thinking will get you through the challenges and help you see opportunities—even during this economic downturn.
As partners, you’re best suited to calm each other’s fears, especially the irrational ones. For instance, many may feel tempted to stop investing altogether. Don’t do it. Bottom line is, don’t stop paying yourself first. This means don’t shut off your 401(k) plan and don’t start shutting down your IRAs. Stay vigilant, and don’t stop saving because, at the end of the day, whether you are putting money in stocks, bonds or cash, it’s the habit of saving money that is key.
And don’t be tempted to use home equity to pay off credit cards or consumer debt. Home equity loans are a big reason people are upside-down on their mortgages and can’t sell their homes—or have lost them to foreclosure.
Make sure you keep an eye on your financial goals. For years I have told my readers the most important investment decision they can make as a couple is to buy a home or to save for one. Remember that how you finance the home is more important, in many cases, than the price or location. Getting the financing wrong can result in losing your home, as we’ve seen with so many people who took out adjustable-rate mortgages without understanding the risks, which is something I’ve always preached against.
As I mentioned, there are hidden opportunities that come from economic downturns. In my other book, Start Late, Finish Rich, I talk about ways to grow your income by starting your own business. I do believe during the next 24 to 36 months, millions of Americans will see the greatest opportunities in their lifetimes to build wealth. In addition to starting a business, there are opportunities to buy real estate at a discount. Throughout recessions, there have been many people who take lemons and make lemonade. And there will be many people who become millionaires during this recession.
The truth is we’ll get through this, and the economy will ultimately turn around and markets will go up because they always do. But my guess is that it’s going to take a couple of years. My grandpa used to say “This, too, will pass.”
But make sure you and your partner are communicating about your financial goals in the meantime. If you are badly in debt or living paycheck to paycheck, I’m here to tell you, as someone who has personally coached thousands of people on their finances, it can and will get better if you and your partner will take action together. The sooner you start working together, the more quickly you can dramatically improve your financial picture.
David Bach is the author of several national best-sellers, including Start Late, Finish Rich and The Automatic Millionaire. His latest book is Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Steps to Save the Earth (and Get Rich Trying). Founder and chairman of FinishRich Media, Bach is frequently featured on television and radio shows and in newspapers and magazines. He serves on the Habitat for Humanity board and is co-founder of Makers of Memories, an organization helping victims of domestic violence.